The Hunger Games (Series) | Study Guide

Suzanne Collins

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The Hunger Games (Series) | Themes

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Power

The theme of power, and the means by which people achieve it, is woven throughout The Hunger Games trilogy. Early in Panem's history, the Capitol gained power by gradually diverting most of the nation's resources to the Capitol, making the districts themselves weaker and increasingly dependent on the central government. Then, when the districts finally tried to fight back, the Capitol used its wealth to crush the rebellion, completely obliterating District 13, and turning the remaining districts into virtual slaves.

The power of the Capitol only increases from that point on, strengthened by the use of oppression and fear. The inescapable presence of the Peacekeepers, the stocks and gallows in the village squares, and the annual ritual of the Hunger Games are constant reminders of the power the government holds. They also serve as a warning that resistance will be met with destruction. As Katniss realizes, the Games and the physical threats send a clear message to the districts, forcing them to see how they "take [their] children and sacrifice them," and pointing out there is nothing they can do. If they lift a finger to protest, they will be annihilated, just as District 13 was.

But continued oppression can lead to rebellion and to an eventual shift in the power structure. This is exactly what plays out in Mockingjay, when the District 13 rebels eventually overthrow and then take control of the government. The danger of a power shift, though, is that those who were oppressed can, in turn, become the oppressors, becoming as merciless and dangerous as the government they replace. It is a reality that echoes the famous quotation by the English historian Lord Acton: "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Reality versus Appearance

The phrase "real or not real?" is used late in the trilogy by Peeta's companions to help him distinguish between memories that are true and memories that have been planted in his mind through brainwashing. But it also captures a key theme running throughout the trilogy as the government, the rebels, and even the general population manipulate images, words, and feelings to influence others or mask the truth. Obvious, superficial attempts to manipulate reality take place in the Capitol, where surgery is used to make people appear younger, thinner, or more attractive. They wear heavy makeup and extravagant fashions to mask their true selves, sometimes even adopting bizarre looks such as Tigris's cat face. They believe that whatever they are would never be good enough to impress their neighbors. Only the glitz has an impact.

The importance of appearance versus reality moves up several notches in the Hunger Games, where producers play with reality just as efficiently as they do on any contemporary reality TV show. Contestants, events, and the arena itself are manipulated by the Gamemakers to create thrilling story lines with unexpected twists. When the tributes are brought to the Capitol, a prep team turns them into characters rather than people. Their physical appearances are altered to make them more attractive, or sympathetic, or exciting. Their skills are evaluated so the Gamemakers can set up situations to create the best possible entertainment, and to ensure the audience and potential sponsors will make flash decisions about whom they like and dislike. Events in the Games are also massaged. Cameras focus on—or cut away from—the action as needed, and the producers edit the footage to present the most effective story to their viewers. This manipulation of people and events means that nothing is necessarily as it seems, and that what is broadcast is both real and not real. Perhaps worst of all, the producers think nothing of using suffering and death as entertainment, playing to the audience's basest instincts. The most hideous example of this is the savaging of Cato at the hands of the wolflike creatures, drawn out for hours by the producers to provide must-see TV.

However, the Games provide a taste of how reality is manipulated for the purpose of propaganda once the rebellion breaks out. The rebels' propaganda shots (propos) are staged and enhanced for maximum effect, as are those from the Capitol (Katniss realizes at one point that the corpse of a woman she has killed has been touched up with makeup for the cameras). People are used as symbols, and misinformation is broadcast as truth. An unintended effect of all this is that eventually no one can trust anyone or anything, and each person begins to mask his or her own thoughts, words, and emotions in order to survive.

Warfare

Americans often refer to World War II as "the good war" because it was perceived to be a conflict in which the United States fought on the side of democracy, freedom, and justice against brutal enemies and vicious dictatorships. Wars, however, are seldom black and white, and whether they are good or bad is often a matter of perception. For example, the United States entered the war only after it was attacked, not as a crusade to liberate others. It also used atomic bombs to destroy cities, causing tremendous suffering. Throughout The Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins explores the idea of good/necessary wars and bad/unnecessary wars, making it clear that the lines between the two can blur. She also makes it clear that no matter how justifiable the war, its end result is death and devastation, which takes a terrible mental and emotional toll on the survivors.

Other than the war for survival that led to the creation of Panem, two key wars are at the heart of the trilogy. The first occurred during what became known as the "Dark Days," when the 13 districts rebelled against the Capitol that was oppressing them. From the point of view of the rebels, this was a good and necessary war, fought to overthrow a dictatorship. However, the Capitol fights back to retain its power, destroying rebel strongholds and appearing to obliterate one of the districts. It then establishes an even harsher government to prevent further uprisings. Readers learn few details about the war, but they see the result: a brutal regime that keeps most of the population in servitude, and sacrifices innocent children in the Hunger Games to prove its power.

The second rebellion highlights the true horrors of war. Even though the resistance started for a good reason—to eradicate the monstrous dictatorship of President Snow—Collins does not shy away from showing that war means death, and that atrocities are committed by both sides. Towns are destroyed, good and innocent people are murdered, and bombs reduce buildings to rubble. Both sides also continue to search for more and more effective ways to destroy each other. The Capitol has its pods and its mutts, but District 13 begins developing its own arsenal, along with human traps. The worst of these is the barricade of doomed children used to turn the populace against President Snow. Collins seems to want readers to realize that although wars may sometimes be necessary, there is rarely anything "good" about them. The physical, mental, and emotional damage is too great, and the people involved are often corrupted or emotionally destroyed by the actions they must take.

Haves versus Have-Nots

From the first pages of The Hunger Games, Collins shows how economic differences can create dangerous conflicts between groups of people. In Panem, the citizens of the Capitol are wealthy and want for nothing. They live a decadent lifestyle, indulge every whim, and spend their time obsessed with food and appearance. The people of the districts, on the other hand, are desperately poor and often on the brink of starvation. They are forced into illegal activities such as poaching or bartering on the black market just to survive.

Katniss becomes aware of just how massive the divide between the two groups is when she first arrives at the Capitol after the reaping. She witnesses firsthand the absurd clothing, lavish banquets, and self-indulgent behavior. As Cinna notes, "How despicable we must seem to you." His comment highlights the dangers of social and economic inequality. The people in the districts can't help but hate and resent the people in the Capitol, seeing them only as pampered, spoiled, and self-involved creatures. As for the citizens in the Capitol, the lives of those in the districts are so far removed from their experience as to be beyond comprehension. Neither side is able to see the other as a group of real people with families, lives, needs, and emotions. Tragically, this will later make it easier for each side to try to destroy the other.

The inequity does not exist only between the Capitol and the districts. Even in District 12, families such as Peeta's and Madge's are better off than most of the others. They don't have to participate in the tessera system, where poorer people can procure additional resources for their family by entering their names more times in the reaping. This system was put in place by the government as a means to divide the districts. The resentment and mistrust created by the tesserae drives a wedge between potential friends and allies, weakening the districts even more.

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